The Flagler County School Board can’t even agree to denounce hate.
In an equivalence remarkably similar to that of Donald Trump in 2017, when the president blamed both sides equally after hate groups and their opponents clashed in Charlottesville, Va., Flagler County School Board member Jill Woolbright on Tuesday objected to the inclusion of the word “hate groups” in a proposed district statement “denouncing hate groups.” She said the “poor behavior” witnessed at recent meetings or outside the Government Services Building was “from all groups in our community.”
On Nov. 17, students organized a demonstration outside the Government Services Building against the banning of certain books from school libraries. Woolbright was seeking those bans. The demonstration drew a counter-demonstration by adults, several of them dressed in camouflage and body armor and bearing flags and insignias associated with extremism such as the Three Percenters. The counter-demonstrators hurled slurs, insults and sexual taunts at the students and attempted to drown out the students’ speeches with blaring noise. The scene drew considerable attention–and police presence–and the condemnation of two board members–Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin. (See “Student Protesters Face Hail of Vile Obscenities, Taunts and Threats From Group Claiming to Speak For Children.”)
Woolbright’s equivalence placed the district’s students on the same plane as the counter-protesters, couching it by claiming that she had heard slurs from both sides while sitting at the dais and hearing people speak from the podium–and claiming that there are no hate groups in Flagler County. She attributed the claim to unnamed Flagler County Sheriff’s officials, only calling them “the powers that be at the sheriff’s office.” or “the top people at the sheriff’s department.” Since the Sheriff’s Office was not willing to attribute the “hate group” label to individuals in the county, Woolbright said she was not willing to include reference to hate groups in the district’s statement. (Asked about the Woolbright statement, the Sheriff’s Office said it would respond but had not done so before this article initially published.)
The objection was the latest ideologically-tainted wrangle over words on a school board sharply divided along ideological lines. Weeks ago the board divided over the use of the word “equity” in the district’s long-range goals, a term to which McDonald, Woolbright and Massaro herself initially agreed to remove, only for Massaro to reverse course. The word, to which the extreme right often objects, was put back into the document, with an asterisk.
At a workshop on Tuesday going over the agenda for the next regular meeting of the School Board, on Jan. 18, Massaro brought forth a two-paragraph statement denouncing hate. The board had previously agreed to consider issuing such a statement, but its content was not specified. Massaro wrote it. The first paragraph sums up the board’s responsibility to ensure “a safe learning environment” for students. It drew no objections. The second read, “the Flagler County School Board formally denounces, and will not tolerate intimidating actions, slurs, name calling and/or threats of violence by representatives of Hate or other groups toward Flagler County School District students, staff, administrators, or the public, while these individuals engage in school district related business.” (See the statement in full below.)
Woolbright immediately objected. She wanted mention of “representatives of hate or other groups” eliminated from the body of the statement, and she wanted the words “Denouncing Hate Groups” eliminated from the proclamation’s title.
“To say hate groups to me is pretty severe and I wanted to make sure that there’s no emotion in that,” Woolbright said. She said she’d spoken to (unnamed) sheriff’s officials and based her objections on what she’d learned from them. “The question was asked if any of our meetings or any of the activities that they saw outside our meetings in the sidewalks, or in the meetings, if they would attribute to–did they attribute them to known hate groups, and the answer was no, that they didn’t have any knowledge or proof that there were actual members of actual hate groups.” But her opposition appeared based on what she had seen: “I witnessed some poor behavior from all parts of our community. I witnessed poor behavior from, if you want to talk about groups, from all groups in our community. I witnessed slurs, I heard name-calling, I’ve heard name calling from the podium, addressing us on the dais,” Woolbright said. She called the word hate “subjective.”
Even aside from the counter-demonstrators at the November confrontation, Woolbright’s blanket claim that hate groups have not been detected in Flagler is demonstrably false: the Pacific Justice Institute, “an anti-LGBT hate group,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, placed a public record request for a list of library books in Flagler schools a few months ago, just as the wave of challenges of LGBTQ and anti-racism books was beginning across the country. Woolbright’s own challenge was not far behind.
Woolbright was fine with the statement otherwise. “I just would like to take out ‘of hate or other groups.’ Take out those five words and then I’m okay with how it reads, and then take out the ‘hate group’ in the title,” she said, “however we want to name it, but not hate group.” Woolbright also insisted that the statement should apply to school employees as well, because, she said, she saw school employees speak inappropriately–again creating an equivalence that cast opponents of hate in the same light as those pushing it.
McDonald was troubled by the whole statement, arguing that it’s not the board’s place to denounce anything. “We we have to have a more adult presentation or expectation to live in this world. That everyone has free speech. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to approve of it. You don’t have to align to it. They have that right. Their opinions. We have no ability and we have no latitude to judge other people,” McDonald said–an astounding statement in light of her diametrically opposed position only weeks ago when she was calling for the board to be judge, jury and executioner in the banning of books she deemed inappropriate.
McDonald continued: “I was asked to denounce things that happened outside the building that I’ve had no vision of, I didn’t see it. I heard stories, I saw clips of videos. That’s not the whole story.” She added: “I don’t think it’s the school board’s decision to denounce anyone. And we don’t have hate groups as the Sheriff’s Department says, so it’s our opinion and that doesn’t legally qualify for a hate group.”
“There were people here on that particular night that you’re speaking about, that had on their bodies labels from the Three Percenters, which is a hate group, as well as from the Proud Boys, which is another hate group,” Massaro said. “They do not live in this county. You’re absolutely correct. But they were here. They were the ones who were intimidating our students, which we do have a responsibility to stand up for and protect, okay? That is our responsibility as a school board, whether it’s in the dais, whether it’s on school grounds, or whether it’s outside of meetings.”
“I hear what you’re saying Ms. Cheryl, and yeah, mama bear comes out when it comes to our kids,” Woolbright said.
“You keep saying that, but I have yet to see that Ms. Woolbright,” Massaro said.
Board member Janet McDonald, who at one point said she objected to the entire statement, wanted the word “denounces” eliminated from the text, saying se didn’t like its tone (“the Flagler County School Board formally denounces, and will not tolerate intimidating actions, slurs,” and so on). The word was replaced with “reaffirms.”
Conklin did not attend the meeting. (She revealed this morning on Facebook that she had tested positive for Covid.) But asked about the outcome of Tuesday’s workshop on the proclamation, Conklin said: “I was disappointed I wasn’t able to participate in the discussion but would have pressed for denouncing the hate groups. The individuals we are referencing are not from Flagler county and are members of the Three Percenters and Proud Boys. Identified hate groups. This is not a freedom of speech issue. What took place was hate speech directed at our students, parents and teachers. We should have zero tolerance for such behavior.”
McDonald, who would have rather not had a proclamation on the matter, then raised concerns about enforcement of the statement. Tucker, who had not objected to the first version Massaro brought forth, said enforcement is not part of proclamations. “We’re reading an announcement saying we are against these things,” Tucker, who chairs the board, said. “It’s a proclamation. The same as stalking awareness. It’s a proclamation. We don’t do anything to stalkers that we know of, because we don’t have that authority. But this is the same thing. We’re saying: We don’t want these things to occur, and that’s why it’d be read as a proclamation.”
During the discussion regarding the word “equity,” Tucker had no objections either way to including or eliminating it. He appeared to have no objections either way to the Massaro proclamation–raising the possibility that the matter may not be over, once Conklin returns and is part of the discussion on adoption of the proclamation, since a three-vote majority for the original wording is still possible–unless it is read before Conklin has a chance to raise an objection.